The number of Covid-19 cases in South Korea climbed to a new daily high of 1,615 on Wednesday (July 14) as a fourth wave of infections swept through the country, particularly in the capital area, prompting the authorities to tighten restrictions in other regions too.
The daily figures have remained above 1,000 for eight consecutive days, raising the total tally in the country to 171,911 as of Wednesday. The death toll stood at 2,048, or 1.19 per cent of cases.
Health officials urged people to adhere to the restrictions, pointing out that infections had doubled from last week and could rise to above 2,000 a day if the situation did not improve.
Small clusters of infections have started popping up all around the country.
A worrying 30.9 per cent of new cases in the past two weeks cannot be traced, and the more contagious Delta variant was found in 23.3 per cent of cases last week - almost double the previous week.
About 80 per cent of the local infections reported on Wednesday were detected in the capital area of Seoul city, Gyeonggi province and Incheon city.
Social distancing rules in the capital area have been tightened to the highest Level 4 since Monday. This meant the closure of all entertainment outlets, a 10pm curfew for most businesses, and only two people allowed to gather together from 6pm to 5am. Up to four people are allowed to gather at other times of the day.
All schools in the capital area have also gone online since Wednesday, and will remain online until summer vacation starts in two weeks.
Regions outside the capital area were at the lowest Level 1, although Sejong, North Jeolla, South Jeolla and North Gyeongsang have decided to raise it one notch from Thursday (July 15) due to growing concerns over the new clusters.
In the south-eastern region, South Gyeongsang province reported 87 new cases on Wednesday, while Busan added 62 and Daegu, 52.
Under Level 2, restaurants, cafes and bars are allowed to open until midnight and up to eight people are allowed to gather. There are no restrictions on gathering numbers or operating hours under Level 1. But Sejong city decided to allow only up to four people to gather despite being under Level 1.
In Seoul, a major cluster traced to Hyundai Department Store in the posh Gangnam district has grown to 147 cases. About 102 are staff members, 25 are visitors, and 20 are family members and close contacts.
Seoul city officials said a total of 22,000 people had been tested in relation to the cluster, including up to 16,000 visitors to the store.
Meanwhile, smaller clusters were found at two other department stores and a megamart.
Officials said the virus could have spread in common spaces such as rest areas, changing rooms and bathrooms, adding that they would strengthen anti-virus measures targeting these "vulnerable spaces".
Seventeen cases were traced to an office building in central Seoul, while an Internet cafe in nearby Gwangmyeong city reported 16 cases, and an elementary school in Incheon city had 17.
A football club based in Seongnam city in Gyeonggi province reported 11 cases – five players and six coaching staff.
Demand for vaccination has grown in tandem with the increasing number of cases but has been hampered by a supply shortage.
Figures from the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) show a total of 15.6 million people, or 30.6 per cent of the 51.3 million population, had received at least one dose as of Wednesday. This is up slightly from the 29.8 per cent at the end of June.
Only six million, or 11.8 per cent of the population, have been fully vaccinated with both doses, said the KDCA.